Demonised at the time as thugs and enemies of progress, the Captain Swing protesters were in fact bold campaigners for a fairer and more prosperous Britain, writes PETER FROST.
Rich farmers have always used mechanisation. Not to improve the lot of agricultural workers, but to reduce wages and costs — they still do. Witness the mega-dairies being developed today with cows being milked with no human intervention at all.
In October 1830, 185 years ago, rural workers sought to protect their jobs in what became known as the the Captain Swing riots over the introduction of new threshing machines.
They were called riots by the right-wing press of the day which portrayed the participants as unthinking, uncouth rioters in the same way as they had portrayed their industrial fellow protesters against the way that industrialisation was being used to throw skilled workers on the scrapheap as Luddites — still a term of abuse today.
In fact both followers of Swing and the Luddites were deep thinkers with a political understanding that progress and industrial developments could be used for the good of everybody or simply to enrich a very few already rich people. They chose direct action to encourage the former.
The Swing actions began with the destruction of threshing machines in the Elham Valley between Canterbury and Folkestone in East Kent in the summer of 1830. By early December the protest had spread throughout the whole of southern England and East Anglia.
The first threshing machine was destroyed on the night of Saturday August 28 1830 and by the third week of October over 100 threshing machines had been smashed in east Kent.
Between 1811 and 1816 in the towns and cities, in the factories and mills the Luddites — English textile workers protesting against mechanisation — were smashing textile machinery. They realised that far from making work easier the industrial revolution was throwing skilled artisans out of work.
Both Luddites in factories and the Swing movement in the countryside had the goal of winning a better bargaining position with their bosses. For both groups their principal aims were simply to attain a minimum living wage and to end unemployment.
The Swing activities had many immediate causes, but were mainly prompted by the fact that agricultural workers were getting much poorer after the Napoleonic wars in the years leading up to 1830.
In Parliament Lord Carnarvon said that the English labourer was reduced to a plight more abject than that of any race in Europe, with their employers no longer able to feed and employ them.
Both groups of protesters were demonised by the media of the time much like strikers are today. On October 21 1830 The Times newspaper reported that threatening letters sent to farmers, magistrates, parsons, and others were signed by a Captain Swing. There was no Captain Swing but the name stuck.
Early 19th-century England was virtually unique among major nations in having no peasant class owning small agricultural plots.
Between 1770 and 1830 — in the Enclosure Acts of rural England — no less than a million acres (24,000 km2) of common land were enclosed by rich landowners depriving the common people of ancient rights to use common ground.
For centuries this common land had been used by the poor of the countryside to graze their animals and grow their own produce. This land was now divided up among the large local landowners, leaving the landless farm workers dependent upon working for their richer neighbours for a cash wage.
After the Napoleonic wars in 1815 grain prices plummeted. Many farm workers were thrown out of work and at home they faced poverty and the prospect of the workhouse. Farmers would pay their workers as little as possible, knowing that the parish fund would top up wages. Echoes of working tax credits of today.
Another burden was the tithe demanded by the Church of England of a 10th of the harvest to pay the parson a generous wage and the Swing movement demanded a large reduction in these taxes.
Horse-powered threshing machines and later portable steam engines were introduced, which could do the work of many men. These machines could have offered easier work and shorter hours. Instead they threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farm workers.
Disastrous harvests 1828 and 1829 were the last straw. In the autumn of 1830 farm labourers feared what winter might bring.
From Kent the Swing protests spread rapidly through the southern counties of Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex and Hampshire, before spreading north into the Home Counties, the Midlands and East Anglia.
If the warnings were ignored large groups of farm workers would gather and threaten rich and powerful farmers. The hated threshing machines would be broken and workhouses and tithe barns would be attacked. Some would be burnt to the ground. Favourite targets for burning were the huge haystacks that dominated the landscape.
One of these haystack fires on the evening of Tuesday November 30 1830 marked perhaps the most northern outbreak of the Swing protests.
This stack was just outside Carlisle, Cumberland. A large crowd gathered round the blazing stack shouting their demands.
In the next few days local magistrates and assorted bigwigs received threatening letters signed Swing. Two men were charged with arson, five more with rioting.
Eventually the farmers, up and down the country, agreed to raise wages and the parsons and some landlords reduced the tithes and rents. But many farmers reneged on the agreements and the protests increased.
Rich landowners in England felt seriously threatened by the Swing movement and they responded harshly. Nearly 2,000 protesters were brought to trial in 1830–1831 — 252 were sentenced to death, although in fact only 19 were actually hanged, 644 were imprisoned and 481 were transported to penal colonies in Australia.
William Cobbett wrote an article entitled The Rural War about the Swing protests. It led to charges of seditious libel.
At his trial in July 1831 at the Guildhall, he subpoenaed six members of the cabinet, including the prime minister. After this own vigorous defence he was acquitted.
Earl Grey in the House of Lords suggested the best way to reduce the violence was to introduce reform of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, declared the existing constitution perfect. When that was reported a huge demonstration attacked Wellington’s home.
On November 15 1830 Wellington’s government was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons. Earl Grey was asked to form a Whig government.
The Swing movement was a major influence on the Whig government. It added to the strong social, political and agricultural unrest throughout Britain in the 1830s and encouraged a wider demand for political reform culminating in a huge step forward for democracy in Britain with the advent of the Representation of the People Act 1832.
This act increased the electorate from about 500,000 to 813,000 by allowing almost one in five adult males to vote — but still no women.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 23 October 2015